Friday, 1 December 2017

Purple Pens: Enhancing Assessment Literacy and Student Engagement with Feedback through Students Writing Their Own Feedback

Dr Dave McGarvey, School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Keele University

From an abstract submitted to

The aim of this session is to describe and illustrate our experiences of a deceptively simple but effective strategy for improving the quality and timeliness of assessment feedback in large classes through the use of a tutor-led dialogic technique that involves students writing their own feedback using distinctly coloured pens. The objectives are to stimulate discussion of the distinctions between passive receipt of tutor-written feedback and students writing their own feedback in a tutor-led dialogic environment with a view to further enhancing students’ engagement with feedback and feedback literacy.
The UK Quality Code for Higher Education (Chapter B6) articulates indicators of sound practice as a basis for effective assessment [1]. Indicator 6 (developing assessment literacy) states:

‘Staff and students engage in dialogue to promote a shared understanding of the basis on which academic judgements are made’ [1].

This is followed by a narrative that commences: ‘Engaging students, and making use of examples and/or self and peer assessment activities, where appropriate, helps students to understand the process of assessment and the expected standards, and to develop their assessment literacy’ [1] and this captures the essence of the work described here. The use of dialogic feedback cycles provides examples of alternative approaches [2].

In the physical sciences the use of regular high-value, low-stakes paper-based assessments that typically involve calculations, analysis and interpretation of scientific observations and data (e.g. problem sheets, in-class tests) is common practice. Tutor experiences of marking such assessments are invariably characterised by observations of common errors /misconceptions, resulting in much of the feedback that is provided being repeated again and again, which is further exacerbated when dealing with large classes. The desirability of rapid turnaround times coupled with large classes presents challenges for the provision of detailed feedback, and is compounded by ineffectiveness due to the fact that many students do not understand the feedback, or do not read the feedback and only look at their mark.
We (David McGarvey, Laura Hancock, Katherine Haxton, Michael Edwards, Martin Hollamby) have recently trialled a tutor-led dialogic self-assessment method to enhance assessment literacy and feedback in selected high-value, low-stakes 1st year Chemistry assessments. The elements of the approach comprise (i) tutors surveying (but not marking, or writing feedback) completed assessments to inform the feedback to be provided (ii) prompt return of the unmarked work together with a distinctly coloured pen under controlled conditions (iii) interactive tutor-led assessment, during which students mark and write feedback on their own work with the distinctly coloured pen (iv) collection of the scripts to review marking and feedback annotations and (v) return of the work within a subsequent timetabled session.

From a detailed evaluation we have learned that students value this approach to provision of feedback for a variety of reasons, not least that the students have some autonomy over the feedback and can engage in dialogue with the teacher and peers.

‘I can make notes that make sense to me/explain things in the way that I understand them’’ (Keele student)
It is also quite efficient and provides an insight into students’ engagement with feedback. Detailed outcomes of the final student and tutor evaluation and examples [3] will be presented and discussed. Practical advice on adapting the methodology will be provided.

1. UK Quality Code for Higher Education, Chapter B6 (2013),

2. Chris Beaumont , Michelle O’Doherty & Lee Shannon (2011). ‘Reconceptualising assessment feedback: a key to improving student learning?’, Studies in Higher Education, 36:6, 671-687.

3. We thank Lydia Bennett (Keele chemistry undergraduate) for helpful comments and permission to use her annotations as examples.

Creative Commons License
Purple Pens: Enhancing Assessment Literacy and Student Engagement with Feedback through Students Writing Their Own Feedback by Dr Dave McGarvey, Keele University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at